The Darkness Between Doors

by Geron Kees

Chapter 10

The base of the stairs let out onto a well-maintained green. But there was a wooded area straight away before them, and Nyf directed them into it. "Proceed fifteen degrees left," he said, as they entered the oddly bluish undergrowth.

Derry could see where the underbrush had been trampled. There was a clear path leading into the woods. "I think we can follow them by that."

Far ahead of them they heard a crash of mini-thunder as the Crite's staff discharged. Mike swore, and turned to Derry. "You and Cally come with me. We're flying ahead!"

"We will catch up as soon as we can," Erva said quickly. "It is too confined here for us to fly among the trees. But go! A life is in peril!"

Derry followed as his grandfather lifted from the ground and surged ahead along the trampled path. Their head bubbles immediately reasserted themselves to protect their heads as they bulleted forward. Small growths were batted aside effortlessly at they flew, the kinetic energy of the impacts easily absorbed by their suits. The crash of another bolt of lightning reached their ears, and granddad only increased his speed. They were covering ground at an amazing pace, and Derry could scarcely believe the maneuverability of his suit as it darted back and forth between larger trees at the guidance of his will.

There was another crash of lightning, much closer now, and they emerged into the end of a long clearing, where the trees withdrew to the sides and a knee-high blue grass rippled in the light breeze. At the far end of the clearing stood the Crite, his back to them, the staff held out before him as he leaned forward, apparently searching the edge of the clearing.

Mike turned then and raced towards the other end of the field, pulling his zap gun as he did so. Cally moved up beside Derry, and both boys drew their own weapons and surged ahead after Derry's grandfather.

"Stop where you are!" Mike roared, his voice amplified almost to a point beyond reason.

The Crite jumped, and the staff discharged wildly into the trees. But the man then turned with amazing speed, and the staff swept around towards them. Another bolt leapt outward and died against Mike Hamlyn's suit, the energy absorbed and converted as readily as a sponge absorbed water. Mike thrust his hand with the gun in it forward...

What happened next was almost too fast to follow. The underbrush behind the Crite suddenly parted, and the Narthie thrust forward in a surge of motion, his sword extended before him. The blade pierced the Crite cleanly, popping through the front of the mummy-bandage robe amidst a bloom of red spray. The Crite staggered and dropped the staff, which immediately died; and then the Narthie straightened and pulled back, and the sword withdrew.

The Crite managed to turn long enough to see his executioner, and then simply toppled over and fell to the ground.

The Narthie's eyes raised then, caught sight of the three red-suited figures bearing down on him, and his jaw dropped and he took a step backwards.

Granddad immediately slowed, and Derry's suit automatically put on the brakes so as not to run into the back of him. He and Cally each moved to one side of Mike, and the three of them settled to the ground before the stunned Narthie. Mike holstered his weapon, and held his empty hands out before him.

"It's okay, "he said, his voice at a much friendlier volume this time. "We're on your side."

The Narthie gave a slight shake of his head as if to clear it, and then looked down at the Crite. "He killed my friends."

"We know," Mike said quietly. "We saw. I'm so sorry."

The Narthie's gaze reached out to them, searching. "I don't even know why."

Derry felt the man's grief, and clenched his jaw in reaction. He could fully understand what the Narthie was feeling. Just seeing the video of the massacre had been horrifying. Derry could remember how he had felt after learning that his father had passed. Even as little as he had been at the time, the pain of understanding had come upon him like no other he had ever experienced. And this man had lost five of his friends!

They heard a rush of sound from their rear, the beat of great wings, and Erva and Gilden dropped to the ground beside them.

"Ho, traveler!" Erva called. "Stand at ease. You are safe here now."

The Narthie blinked his eyes, and seemed to come fully back to his senses. "Ho! A good thing, if true. I...I don't think I am up to more fighting just now, anyway."

"There is no need," Erva returned gently. "You are among friends."

"Friends." The Narthie carefully resheathed his sword and held out an empty hand. "I am Koort Underlook a'Ormini, of Valspessa Holding. I am a registered trader of the pathways."

Erva gave a solemn bow of his head,and also held out an empty hand. "And I am Erva Furapetra Swiftflight, of Mystacinida Holding. I am a registered courier of the air." He turned slightly, and indicated Gilden. "This is my son and travel mate, Gilden Marciniva, also of Swiftflight clan."

"Cool names," Cally seemed to whisper, on their private link.

"Translations," Nyf replied.

"Awesome," Derry agreed.

The Narthie gave a nod of his head that included his beefy shoulders. "And...your companions?"

"I'm Mike Hamlyn," granddad said, patting the front of his suit. "And these are Derry and Cally, fellow operatives, and travelers of the doorways."

Derry pressed his lips together slightly in order not to smile at that introduction. Granddad could be really creative when he wanted to be!

The Narthie simply stared at them, trying to digest this new information.

"The Armenti, returned," Erva added, in a quiet voice.

"Armenti," the Narthie repeated, his eyes widening. "Returned."

"They have come in response to Crowla Holding's use of a door," Gilden put in. "Crowla and his people have placed our entire world in danger!"

"I have heard of this," Koort acknowledged. "And of the staves. But...I had no idea Crowla's folk were so vicious in their use."

"They have wronged you and your Holding," Erva said gravely. "As they have also done to Inishee Holding, and now Aginshir. We are witnesses to these events."

The Narthie's face fell. "I don't..why was this done? My trade group, killed by this...I have no word for one so despicable." The Narthie looked down at the fallen Crite. "And killed for no reason that I can understand."

They heard running steps behind them then, and Derry turned as Mergrun and Garmin approached them across the field.

Koort's eyes widened, and the Narthie bellowed in anger, going for his sword again. "Here are more of them!"

But Erva surged forward and grabbed the man's arm before he could pull the sword fully from its sheath, and steadied it forcefully. "No, brother. No. These two are with us. They are not the enemy."

Koort's eyes darted from the two approaching Crites back to Erva's. "They are with you?"

"Yes. Only the ones you see dressed as this one on the ground at your feet are the enemy."

Koort gave a brief shake of his head. "But these two carry the staves!"

"Taken from those like the one dead here, when they tried to take over Inishee holding." Erva looked back at Mike and the boys. "The Armenti have come to put a stop to this madness."

Koort's eyes returned to land on the three suited figures before him, and his eyes narrowed skeptically. "So you say. Yet I cannot see who lurks behind these glittery head coverings."

Derry started, and looked around them. Their head bubbles had reverted to their original golden opaqueness.

Mike allowed his head bubble to become transparent again, and Derry and Cally followed suit. "How'd that happen?" Derry wondered over the private link.

"In response to the Crite firing a bolt at you," Nyf supplied. "It's an automatic response to the flash."


Koort was staring at them now, his eyes going from one human to the next. The Narthie gave a small shake of his head then, and a smile slowly spread across his furry face, showing his large frontal incisors plainly. "The Armenti, returned!. Welcome back!"

Mergrun and Garmin were introduced, and those two immediately apologized to Koort about what had happened to his trade group.

The Narthie shook his head slowly, causing his shoulders to twist back and forth. "It was not your deed. And I am not one that holds the transgressions of individuals against others of his kind." He looked over at Erva. "What do you plan next? I would like to accompany you, if it is permitted." The Narthie's gaze moved back to Mike. "I would follow though with this matter and see justice served."

Mike glanced over at Erva. The big Sasparian inclined his head slightly and smiled, and Mike nodded at Koort. "You're welcome to join us." He turned to Mergrun, and waved a hand at the dead Crite. "Get that staff off the ground, if you would, and show Koort how to use it." He turned back to the Narthie. "If you are to join us, you need to be properly armed."

The Narthie drew back at that. "I don't...I don't want to arm myself with the weapon that took my friend's lives."

Mergrun stepped forward and offered his own staff to the Narthie. "This one has not killed, to my knowledge. Please take it, and I will use the weapon of this despised one. And perhaps redeem its misuse."

Koort looked uncertain at that, but saw then that everyone was waiting for his response, and slowly reached a hand towards the offered staff. "I will do this, but the sooner these things are banished from Rustgevend, the better."

"Agreed," Mergrun replied solemnly, as Koort took the weapon from him. "Step over here away from the others, and I will instruct you in it's operation. It is very simple, actually--"

Mergrun and Koort moved back towards the center of the field, and Erva moved closer to the humans. "Hard to know if this dead Crite acted on his own, or if he was left with instructions to kill. Either way, it doesn't speak well of the mindset of Crowla's people."

Garmin pulled one of the small pouches from his harness and opened it, and withdrew a small device of some kind from within. He bent over the dead Crite and held the instrument above the body for a moment, and then gave out a short, hissing sigh. "One of Crowla's own cousins, it would seem. His biometric ID lists his age at but twenty years. So young to have killed so ruthlessly...and to be killed, in return."

"Conflict is always hardest on the young," Mike said gruffly. He glanced at Derry, and shook his head. "I agree, it's sad."

Garmin looked over at the humans. "We must try to prevent further death."

"Yet we must do what is necessary to stop Crowla and those that assist him," Erva immediately inserted. "It may not be possible to do that without more people dying."

"I know." Garmin sounded resigned to the idea. "I'm just saying that we should not let that be our first response, if possible."

"It is the best choice, father," Gilden affirmed. "We did not come here to kill."

Erva smiled at his son. "No, and I agree. Yet difficult problems often come with hard choices. But I will choose the death of Crowla and his cohort over any more deaths among those with no part in their actions." He placed a hand on his son's shoulder and gave it small, affectionate shake. "But we will ask questions before resorting to violence, if possible."

Gilden closed his eyes a moment, as if in relief, and then opened them again and smiled. "What do we do now?"

Erva turned to Mike and the boys. "If I may offer a suggestion?"

Mike grinned. "Shoot."

Erva blinked at how that came out in Aolic, but laughed. "I think that means what I think that means." He took a deep breath and seemed to relax. "It would be dangerous to return to the tube station and enter the transport center that way. If Crowla's people left more guards, it will be along that route. I suggest we circle the complex and make our way inward through one of the other entrances. If there were but six of the Crites with staves, and we have removed one of them, they cannot cover every door and still have enough weapons to hold Aginshir at bay."

"Sounds like a plan," Mike agreed. "And we need to get going the minute Koort is ready to use the staff."

Behind them, there was the distinctive sound of a staff discharge, and they turned as a group to watch as Koort fired the staff a second time. Then the Narthie said something to Mergrun, and the two turned and headed back to them.

"It's not a hard device to learn," Koort said to them, holding the staff away from him at arm's length. "Nasty thing. I wish I had seen its abilities before encountering the guard back in the station. I would not have done what I did."

"You mean charge forward?" Cally asked.

Koort turned to look at him. "How could you know?"

"The station mind keeps a visual record."

Koort squeezed his eyes shut in remembrance. "Evert was our leader. As fine a man as I have ever traveled with. When the Crite denied us entrance, Evert argued with him. Among the things he said to the Crite was a hidden command to those of us behind him to charge as he stepped forward and raised his hands to distract the Crite. I was to propel Evert into the Crite, and then the others were to charge forward and pile atop him. It's a standard defense against tube pirates, though we have only used it once before." Koort's eyes opened again, and now contained a haunted look. "It did not work out as planned this time."

Erva flashed a quick glance at the humans, and then moved closer to the Narthie and settled a hand upon his arm. "It was not your doing, Koort. None of you could know, not really, without having seen a staff in action."

Koort's eyes still held their anguished look. "The Crite was in violation of the law. No one may impede tube travel. Evert decided to treat that one as a tube pirate. It was the right decision...but at the wrong time, I see now."

"It's done," Mike said quietly. "And what happened was the fault of Crowla's people, not yours. This was an act of murder. It will be treated as such, I can assure you."

"It's okay," Derry added, feeling a need to say something reassuring. "We saw what happened. It wasn't your fault. You're with us now. We're going to see this thing made right."

Koort looked over at Derry, and the tips of his incisors peaked out in a small smile. "Thank you for your words. Yet I will live with that moment forever."

"You do not have to accompany us," Mergurn said then. "We would certainly understand you not wishing to do so."

The Narthie let his gaze travel from one face to another, making the full transit of the arc of people arrayed before him. "I will come with you. I will see justice done."

"Then we should go," Mike said. "We need to secure Aginshir, and then move on to Crowla Holding and end this thing."

Koort eyed the staff in his hand, brought it closer to his body, and tapped its end experimentally on the ground. "It will make a fair walking stick, anyway. I am ready."

"Nyf?" Mike asked, over the secure channel. "What's the best way to go?"

"I will cause a directional circle to appear inside your head bubbles. Simply keep it centered, and you will arrive at an entrance in the station outer wall."

A small red circle appeared inside Derry's transparent head bubble, off to the left, and he turned until it was centered. "That way," he said, pointing.

They made good time through the undergrowth, and soon reemerged into the kept grounds around the immense structure of the transport station. From the ground the building even more resembled a castle, the circular wall tall and imposing, and only from ground level showing a slight tendency to taper inward as it rose into the heights. Only the fact that it was smooth, and not made of stone blocks, served to counter the idea that knights and fair maidens might be found within.

"I've noticed something, Nyf," Derry said on the private channel as they marched along the wall in single file.

"That's always a good thing," the artificial intelligence returned, sounding in a good humor. "It proves that you're paying attention."

Cally laughed, and Derry gave a snort. "I'm serious. I was just thinking, that despite having kept a lot of technology going, these guys don't seem to have any way to communicate over distance."

"I was thinking about that, too," Mike said. "The empire didn't have anything like human cell phones, did it? Everyone communicated through their implants, like we're doing now."

"Exactly," Nyf responded. "There is no facility here, on what was basically a vacation planet, to perform that sort of medical procedure. The original citizens stranded here when door travel ended would have already had implants, but all those born here after would lack them."

"I'm surprised they couldn't think of something," Cally said. "Even running wires for old fashioned phones would have been better than nothing."

"Rustgevend lacks any manufacturing facilities," Nyf pointed out. "Beyond the basic amenities of food and clothing, anyway. The ease of supplying any place through the door system made it a profitless venture to install design and manufacturing facilities on many worlds. Population centers all had them, of course, and planets devoted solely to manufacturing. But a resort like this, no."

"But they've had a thousand years," Derry went on. "They could have devised something."

"Creating anything presupposes a need, Derry. It's entirely possible the people here found no need to provide instantaneous - or even speedy - communication between the peaks. Or even between structures on a single peak. They may have just decided it wasn't necessary."

"Well, I'm going to ask." Derry insisted, feeling stubborn.

He drifted back a bit, until he was walking beside Gilden, and brought up the subject of communication between peaks.

The Sasparian boy grinned at him. "Well, I did say that my people act as couriers in this region."

"Yes, you did. But someone that needed to send a quick message couldn't just wait around for one of your guys to show up. What do they do if the need a courier right away?"

"Ah." Gilden's wings flexed slightly, and clapped together in emphasis. "I see what you mean. In a case like that, they use the blinkers to communicate between peaks."

Cally had also drifted back to walk with them by then. "What the heck are blinkers?"

"Mirrors," Gilden told them. "It's easy enough for much of the day to communicate with every peak for some distance around your own, as long as you have line of sight. But that is seldom needed. Couriers make their rounds every day, morning and evening. The most that one needs to wait to send a message is some small part of the day."

Derry laughed then. "Oh! Like mail men!"

"That's cool," Cally added, smiling at the idea. "That must keep your people pretty busy."

"Oh, it does, at least some of them. But message transport is only a portion of the economy of our peak. The truth is, there are not enough peaks within a day of flight to keep but so many couriers busy. Some other of my people are occupied with far trade. That's trade with peaks beyond the normal range one might need to send a message. I have been on several such flights with my father and uncle. They are always exciting!"

"There are communications facilities in place here, beyond those that were carried by each individual in the form of their implants" Nyf added on the private link. "The tube transport centers were all connected by the same technology I used to show you the recorded videos. Each peak's transport station was on a network with all the villas on that peak. So it was once possible to have immediate bidirectional video and audio connections with any place on the planet. Unfortunately, that network went down at the same time as the tube stations. I have to wonder if those that shut down the tubes were aware beforehand that they would also be disabling the communications system."

"Seems not too bright to have all that stuff on one power system," Mike said.

"You have to understand the efficiency and redundancy built into all empire technologies," Nyf returned. "Those that brought down the tube systems went to extraordinary lengths to do so. Otherwise, those technologies would still be in use today."

"You don't feel a need for faster communications?" Derry asked Gilden.

The Sasparian boy looked bewildered. "For what reason? Nothing is so important it cannot wait to be handled by courier."

"How about the present situation?" Cally asked. "It would have been a lot better to let everyone know right away what was happening with Crowla and his bunch."

Gilden frowned at that. "But why? Crowla can act no faster than anyone else on foot. By sending a courier back to our peak, the word has been handed to other couriers, and will be known today on every peak in the area. Crowla's people could get there no faster, I assure you."

"Hmm," Mike said privately. "I think we're wasting our time here, guys. These people have settled into a far more relaxed culture than we have back home. Life here is unhurried, laid back. They don't have faster methods of communication because they don't really have a need for them. Crowla has been the first major problem they've had in a long time." Derry heard his grandfather laugh within his mind. "It wasn't that long ago back on Earth that the world moved at the same pace as this one. I think we're viewing things here through the wrong set of glasses."

"Yeah, Derry," Cally said, humor deep in his voice. "Put the right glasses on!"

Derry grinned at his boyfriend, a promise of pleasant retribution when they were once again alone. Cally appeared happy to receive that look, which only made Derry's grin harder to let go of.

"Uh oh," granddad said then. "My red circle is bearing right here."

Derry focused upon his own guide circle, and it had indeed moved to the right side of his view.

"A doorway, there," Erva called, raising a hand to point.

"All these transport structures use the same basic design," Nyf told them. "This entrance will let you into a circular hallway. Make your way back in the direction we came and you will encounter a hallway to the inner court."

Mike turned to Mergrun. "Is the layout here like at Inishee? A village in the center of the building?"

"It is not exactly the same, no," the Crite supplied. "Aginshir chooses to utilize the living quarters inside the building, and spend their nights in the center atrium. But rather than huts there, they simply have tables and a firepit, and several covered areas for when it rains."

"So they'll be inside the building now, asleep?"

But Mergrun made a gesture of disagreement. "I would say not. If I were Crowla's people, I would want Aginshir and her council in one place so I could watch them. That would go for the entire population, in fact. So we should at least check the atrium first to see if they are there. The only other place large enough to hold the entire population will be the dining hall. So if they are not in the atrium, they will almost certainly be there."

The entrance let them inside without so much as a pause. The hallway here was mostly lit, though there were a few distant sections where it looked like the illumination had failed. They made their way carefully, walking as silently as they could, until a hallway presented itself on the left. Mike turned to the group and pointed at it, but made no sound.

Just then a voice came to them, from out of that very hallway!

"'...have to be vigilant, Deeka! The Armenti have returned, Deeka! Go back to the tube station and help Gantz to guard it, Deeka!' Firebugs! This Jazeere is a bossy sort!" The annoyance and contempt in the voice seemed plain.

Yet they barely had time to absorb the monologue before a Crite bearing a staff came around the corner ahead. His dark eyes came up and beheld the group before him, and he stopped in utter astonishment, his mouth hanging open in shock.

And then the lance began to lean towards them...!

Derry was unsure of what happened next. His hand seemed to move on its own, drawing his zap pistol and firing it at the Crite before he even knew he was doing it. The man's staff, already moving towards them, was suddenly loose as the hand holding it lost its grip, and the staff sailed right at Gilden, who snapped his free hand out and caught it even as the Crite crashed to the floor before them.

For a moment the entire group stood rooted in shock.

"Holy shit!" Cally breathed then, on the private channel. "That was fast as all get out, Derry! Like some old west gunfighter!" An astonished laugh followed that. "You were awesome!"

Derry looked down at the gun in his hand, and then slowly placed it back in his holster.

"It would seem your augment is working just fine," Nyf said, sounding pleased. "Your response time was measurably close to the absolute limit of your nervous system. Not bad for a new implant."

Derry's granddad lifted his eyes from the fallen Crite and turned to smile at his grandson. "Not bad, boy. Not bad at all!"

Derry shook his head. "I didn't even know I was going to do that."

"The germ of the idea was your own," Nyf told him. "The augment simply responded to what you intended, and heightened your response time."

None of this could be heard by the others, of course.

Gilden had been looking at the second staff in his hand, and now turned wide eyes to Derry. "Remind me to always be your friend, Derry."

Derry grinned at that. "Oh, stop. I just happened to act first."

"And rather quickly, too," Erva said approvingly. He stepped forward then and peeked carefully around the corner into the hallway before coming back. He bent then, and examined the Crite. "He is only unconscious. You were more merciful than I might have been in your place."

"I suggest we bind him," Garmin offered. "If he is only unconscious as long as Dith and his group were back at Inishee, we need to restrain him."

Gilden pulled off his pack and opened it, and produced a length of stout cord from within. "You have a knife? I can cut this for you, otherwise."

"I have one," Garmin returned, taking the cord. "Help me, Mergrun."

The two Crites flipped the unconscious one over onto his stomach and deftly bound his hands behind him, and then his legs low down. Mergrun used a knife he produced from his own pack to cut a section out of the enemy Crite's robe, which he then wrapped around the other's head at the mouth and secured with more of the cord.

Then the two Crites stood and replaced their packs.

"He should be able to breathe, unfortunately," Garmin said, a note of humor in his voice. "One cannot have everything, it seems."

Mergrun gave him a slight prod with an elbow, but it was most definitely a comradely one. "We are not of Crowla's ilk, brother. Let this one stand trial for his actions."

Cally made a surprised sound at that. "You guys are brothers?"

Mergrun smiled at him. "No. It is simply a term for a friend. But if I had a brother, he would be as Garmin."

Garmin looked embarrassed at that pronouncement, but not at all displeased. "We work well together," was all he could say.

"This probably answers our question of where the others are," Mike decided aloud. "This guy was coming from the center court."

"And it answers the question of who we face, too," Garmin said. He used the toe of his boot to gently prod the Crite on the floor. "This one mentioned Jazeere. That Crite is one of Crowla's council members. A not very likable soul, if someone were to ask my opinion."

"Two down, and four to go," Mike said. "I say we get this done."

"What of the extra staff?" Gilden asked. "This one will just get in my way if we have to fight."

Mike considered that. "Take it back to the door to outside, and conceal it in the underbrush where we can find it again. Then come back. We'll wait for you."

The Sasparian canted his head in acknowledgement, and then was gone.

Mike smiled at Erva. "Fine boy you have there."

The big Sasparian's chest seemed to swell slightly. "I think so, naturally." He then indicated Derry and Cally. "Your young companions seem to know their jobs well, too."

Mike glanced at Derry, and then Cally, and smiled. "They certainly pass muster with me."

Derry felt a glow of pride at that, and smiled. "We have a good teacher."

Mike and Erva both chuckled.

Koort, who had been silent until now, looked towards the hallway. "I hope this means we have surprise on our side."

"Probably does," Mike agreed. "We'll know in a moment."

Gilden returned then, moving quietly, and positioned himself next to his father again. "All done."

Mike nodded, pulled his zap gun, and nodded towards the hallway. "Let's go. Try to be quiet. If possible, let us do the shooting. I'd prefer to capture them alive."

"Of course," the Narthie offered. "We cannot have a trial without the guilty there to receive judgment."

Mike cast one more glance at Derry, and smiled. "Be careful, guys," he said over the private channel. "Shoot first, ask questions later. We don't want anyone else killed."

Derry drew his own zap gun, and looked over at Cally. His boyfriend winked at him, and drew his own weapon. "I'm ready." His eyes smiled at Derry. "After you, Quickdraw."

They moved into the hallway then, and towards the atrium waiting beyond.

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